Little was expected of ‘The Godfather’ when it was released in 1972, but the epic trilogy ended up changing Hollywood forever.
John Burfitt

21 Dec 2018 - 4:13 PM  UPDATED 10 Feb 2021 - 9:03 AM

For all its Oscars, acclaim and legacy, the fact is The Godfather really should have been a bomb.

Lauded today as one of cinema’s masterpieces, and launching a trilogy that earned nine Oscars, no one knew quite what to expect when the cameras began rolling on the movie in 1971. But creating an epic was not anticipated.

Director Francis Ford Coppola was something of a Hollywood joke, having just made a string of box office duds, while Marlon Brando was deemed a ‘has been’. Even though the novel on which the film is based by Mario Puzo had been a best-seller, it’d been dismissed as pulp fiction, with The New York Times citing its ‘overdramatisation’.

Not adding any puff to the soufflé was the movie cast made up of relative unknowns and B-grade players like Al Pacino, James Caan and Diane Keaton. The director even cast his sister Talia Shire in a central role.

Despite all this, The Godfather created screen magic and was hailed as an instant classic from the moment it premiered on 24 March 1972, winning three Oscars including Best Picture. Far more than that, it also changed cinema.

The collapse of the American Dream

The first words uttered in the movie, “I believe in America” set up the tale that reflected the madness, glory and failure of the American dream, along with the moral decay of optimistic youth. The Godfather took a cynical look at that dream, at a time when the US was embroiled in both Vietnam and Watergate. It helped open the door for tougher, more critical tales in what became known as the ‘New Hollywood of the ’70s’.

The way The Godfather portrayed violence was also a game changer. Severed horse heads in beds, pregnant newlywed wives blown up in cars, backseat strangulation and an endless spray of bullets, brutal violence was throughout, yet proved a vital and valid part of the storytelling.

In his 2012 analysis The Godfather Effect, writer Tom Santopietro claimed, “The film changed Hollywood because it finally changed the way Italians were depicted on film. It made Italians seem like more fully realised people and not stereotypes… it helped Italianise American culture.”

The Godfather also changed the star system of the 1970s. As Don Vito Corleone, Marlon Brando won the Best Actor Oscar (which he refused), and was returned to leading man status. Pacino, Caan, Keaton, Shire, Robert Duvall and John Cazale dominated the screen for the rest of that decade, and the years ahead.

The bold risk of Part II

The wave of change continued two years later with The Godfather: Part II, with Coppola again taking bold risks by structuring the movie as both a prequel and sequel to the original. It explained first how the Corleones settled into America, and then later how the empire grew under Michael’s control. Michael’s moral decay was the compelling force of the story, as the former golden son of the family morphed into a monster.

The movie was a Top 10 hit of 1974 and its breakout star was Robert De Niro, who won an Oscar for playing the young Don. At the Oscars, Part II broke records – it won six of the statuettes, was the first sequel ever to win Best Picture and De Niro and Brando became the only actors to ever win for playing the same role.

All in the timing

When The Godfather: Part III arrived in 1990, too much time had passed since the original movies, and with expectations so high, it disappointed on so many fronts.

The harshest criticism was for the woefully inadequate performance of Sofia Coppola as Michael’s daughter Mary, in a convoluted plot that attempted to combine a story of redemption alongside a tale of Vatican corruption.

But what it did have going for it was the star-making performance of Andy Garcia as Sonny’s hot-tempered son Vincent Mancini, which earned him an Oscar nomination. Part III earned seven Oscar nominations, but unlike its predecessors, won none.

The silent scream

Another thing Part III got right was the conclusion. Michael’s interminable silent scream of horror on the steps of the opera house is spine-chilling, followed by him alone in the sad final scene. It proved a powerful ending, but the journey getting there was far too hit-and-miss.

The film also suffered in comparison to Goodfellas, which had only been released weeks before. The irony is, it’s unlikely Goodfellas would have ever been made if it was not for The Godfather phenomenon. Even the path for TV’s Tony Soprano years later had been paved by The Godfather.

Viewing The Godfather movies as a trilogy puts the magnificent scope of the story into context, charting the journey from the youngsters starting out through to the breakdown of the family unit, complete with the corruption and, ultimately, the cost of all their dreams.




The Godfather

USA, 1972
Genre: Crime, Drama
Language: English
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Starring: Marlon Brando, John Cazale, Diane Keaton, Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, James Caan
What's it about?
Don Vito Corleone (Brando) is a man trying to protect his children Michael (Pacino), Sonny (Caan), and Fredo (Cazale) from the horrors of the family 'business', while Michael attempts to care for his new wife Kay (Keaton).

Cast of 'The Godfather' reunite for emotional 45th anniversary
It was a Corleone family reunion as Francis Ford Coppola and his stars reflected on the making of the classic crime family saga.


Watch 'The Godfather: Part II'

Thursday 18 February, 9:30pm on SBS World Movies (NOTE: No catch-up at SBS On Demand)

USA, 1974
Genre: Drama, Crime
Language: English, Italian, Latin, Spanish
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Starring: Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, Robert De Niro, John Cazale, Talia Shire, 
What's it about?
In the continuing saga of the Corleone crime family, a young Vito Corleone grows up in Sicily and in 1910s New York. In the 1950s, Michael Corleone attempts to expand the family business into Las Vegas, Hollywood and Cuba.


The Godfather: Part III

Italy, USA, 1990
Genre: Crime, Drama, Thriller
Language: English, Italian, German, Latin
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Starring: Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, Talia Shire, Andy Garcia, Eli Wallach, Joe Mantegna, George Hamilton, Bridget Fonda, Sofia Coppola

Studio Ghibli animation magician Gorō Miyazaki talks summoning forth ‘Earwig and the Witch’
Continuing the Japanese animation dynasty, Gorō Miyazaki talks about switching to computer animation, capturing the spirit of a magical YA novel, and learning from his dad.
Director Emerald Fennell takes a scalpel to rape culture with ‘Promising Young Woman’
Actor and ‘Killing Eve’ writer Emerald Fennell’s directorial debut is blackly funny, deeply uncomfortable and angry as hell. No wonder it’s one of the most talked about films of the past year.
TV Movie Guide: 15 - 21 February
When it comes to movies, there's something for everybody on SBS, SBS VICELAND, NITV and SBS On Demand. Find out what's screening where and when.
SBS World Movies Weekly Highlights: 15 - 21 February
Your guide to some of the stories from around the world, screening on Australia's own HD SBS World Movies channel (Digital channel 32).
Golden Globes Nominations: 18 Biggest Snubs and Surprises
Who was left out in the cold this awards season?
Celebrate the Year of the Ox with the Lunar New Year Collection at SBS On Demand
Ring in the Year of the Ox with these highlights at SBS On Demand.
Enjoy a selection of the 2021 Latin American Film Festival at SBS On Demand
New Latin American films are launching every day from 1 - 5 February, in a special joint presentation with the Latin American Film Festival (LAFF).
Movies Leaving SBS On Demand: February 2021
Don't miss your chance to watch these standout movies and documentaries leaving SBS On Demand throughout February.